Archive for August, 2008

The Mild Ones

note from the editor: this piece is rated PG-13 and it has nothing to do with vegetables. It’s a good story, and all true! -julia

Hi Everybody: Today is my birthday, so please excuse me if I take a break from writing about food and farming to engage in a little sentimental reflection. Don’t we all have those moments when we look back wistfully at childhood when life was simple?

I’m thinking now about that old black and white movie, The Wild One, with a very young Marlon Brando, where he plays “Johnny,” the leader of a motorcycle gang that terrorizes a small California town. Did you ever see that? It’s hysterical. Actually, the costume designers were the real stars, since so many of their notions about how to look cool were taken up by the actual bikers of the times. The movie is (very loosely) based on an “incident” in Hollister, July 4th, 1947, when several thousand motorcycle riders, led by the Boozefighters motorcycle club, went on a rampage for several days and trashed the town. Castroville has an Artichoke Festival, Watsonville has a Strawberry Festival, Gilroy has a Garlic Festival, and Greenfield even has a Broccoli Festival, but Hollister, where I farm, has an annual biker rally that celebrates the attempted rapes, drunken assaults, and broken windows from times past.

During the rally the air around our farm is alive with the sound of Harleys, and the streets in Hollister swarm with insurance brokers, accountants, dentists, and software engineers that like to dress up in leather and play at being Marlon Brando playing “Johnny” who played at being Sonny Barger. I call them “The Mild Ones.” It can get loud as they roar up and down San Felipe Rd. in packs, but for a day or two out of the year I don’t mind. The weekend warriors are kind of cute, and then vrooooom, they’re gone.

The real outlaw bikers aren’t quite so cute. I remember when I was a kid in ‘75, growing up in Carmel Valley, an Oakland Angel named “Wino Joe” bought a trailer on a small lot along the south side of Carmel Valley Road where it runs along Paloma Creek, a few miles before the junction with Arroyo Seco Road. Wino came up to Jimmy Bell’s corral and introduced himself, and he was neighborly. For a “house warming” party of sorts he posted invitations on every phone pole from Tassajara Road to Greenfield inviting “one and all” to join him for his first “April Fools ‘Fool-around,’ BYOBGD.” (That would be short for “Bring your own beer, guns, and drugs.”)

Wino explained the whole concept to us. The attraction was going to a game of Blind Man’s Bluff played nude after sundown, and whoever was “it” got to ride around the property in the dark on an ATV 110, one of those now-outlawed motorized all terrain trikes with balloon tires that tended to roll over if you turned too quick. Here’s the kicker: Whoever was “it,” got to try and “tag” the other nude contestants by discharging a double barreled shotgun loaded with rock-salt. If you’re high enough, this can be a lot of fun. I wanted to go, but my stick-in-the-mud old man said no. Jimmy drove past, and he said the Monterey Sheriff’s squad cars were lined up along Carmel Valley Road late into the night with their flashing red lights throwing a festive sparkle over the broken beer bottles and aluminum Coors cans that were scattered all over the ground.

The cops weren’t able to kill the joy because it was Wino’s private party, it was on private land, and besides, he’d taken care to invite all the neighbors. Back then, in Arroyo Seco, “okie” still meant white-trash from Oklahoma and didn’t refer to a tannic Chardonnay with vanilla notes that’s spent too much time on French oak, and nobody cared all that much about the commotion.

Two of Wino’s guests that night, Buddy and Candy, enjoyed themselves immensely, and decided to buy their own place in the country. Candy had lots of money; and issues! She bought the old Melen Ranch that lay in between the Hastings Reserve, where I lived, and the Tregea Ranch, up Martin Road, so we got to be neighbors! Buddy was a knuckle-head who liked to beat the solutions out any problems he encountered in life. He was too much the loose cannon to ever make the cut for an esteemed outfit like the Hells Angles, but Buddy rode with them when he wasn’t in jail or occupied with his own “1% motorcycle club,” The Losers, who were based out of Seaside and Marina.

Buddy had a half-wit, hare-lipped, half-brother named Darrell who was just smart enough to keep balanced on his chopper when he rode with the Losers. It was when he wasn’t riding that Darrell ran into trouble. He fell off hike bike into bed with Candy one night, by mistake, and then Buddy came into the room and found the two of them trysted in a knot, so he beat Darrell half to death. Candy ran off into the night, made her way through the weeds and brush over the hill to Hastings, and showed up on our doorstep sobbing that Buddy was going to kill her too. She begged my father to save her. (Bear in mind that this is same party-pooper father of mine that hadn’t let me to play naked blind man’s bluff with Wino Joe a year earlier.) Dad suggested that maybe he ought to call the cops, but Candy said, “Oh, no! Boo-hoo-hoo! Because then they might arrest Buddy!”

Buddy was the kind of guy you had to take seriously when he made death threats. He looked like Marlon’s Johnny could only wish to look like– a real Hun, with red eyes, blurry tattoos, long Jesus hair, a forked beard, and greasy jeans held up by a motorcycle chain. The cops arrested Buddy anyway, not because he beat up his brother and threatened his wife’s life, but because an unrelated assault Buddy perpetrated against a well digger who’d “looked” at Candy. During Buddy’s incarceration, Candy got lonely so she started screwing around with some Hells Angels. The Angels brought a 50 caliber machine gun out to the Ranch and had fun shooting it at ancient old oak trees and deer, old pick-up trucks in the dump, and so on. For a while our little canyon sounded like the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

Then Buddy got out of the slammer and came home to Candy. He had a big party to celebrate his freedom, but he got too twisted and crashed his bike on one of the few straight stretches upper Carmel Valley Road has to offer, and died. Some people are simply allergic to money. If Candy had been poor white trash, instead of a slumming rich girl, Buddy would have had to steal for a living and he’d probably still be alive today, fat and sassy in Soledad, with an active social life in the Aryan Brotherhood. Oh well.

Candy never got cold at night. She took up with the Angels again, and married one right away. This was at exactly the same time as the government was preparing for a maxi-trial against the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, and even Sonny Barger, the club president, was indicted. My father’s friend, Jim Farlinger, a Monterey Presbyterian Church organist and the owner of Farlinger’s Funeral Home in Monterey, had the honor of officiating over the burial ceremony that sent Buddy on his final ride off to Valhalla. Candy wanted an open casket ceremony, so on a foggy afternoon, with the smell of eucalyptus leaves and Harley exhaust mingling in the sea-salt air of the cemetery down behind Dennis The Menace Park in Monterey, Losers and Angels gathered together to give their last respects to a fallen brother. They lined up and filed past the coffin, dropping in mementos and items that Buddy would need in his afterlife; knives, hash pipes, bongs, baggies of weed, speed, coke and tabs of blotter acid. “And,” Mr. Farlinger said,” lots and lots of guns.”

Once you’re dead and buried, it just about takes an act of Congress, plus the permission of your spouse, for officers of the state to exhume your body. The government wanted to prove that the Hells Angels MC was a criminal organization that enforced control over its share of the drug trade by murder, but their Federal maxi trial of over thirty senior club officials ran into trouble in part because they had no murder weapons to introduce as evidence. If the Feds had asked, Candy, who was already married to the mob, certainly wasn’t going to give them permission to dig her Buddy up and claw through his bones for the evidence they needed to put her new squeeze away. Instead, Candy put the Melen Ranch up as collateral for a truly huge bail bond, and in the end, most, if not all, of the Angels flew the coop. The Melen Ranch was sold, and sold again, and now the land is part of the Hastings Reserve.

My peripheral contact with the Wild Ones wasn’t quite over. When I was in college I worked for several years setting up stages and unloading trucks for rock & roll concert promoters around the Sacramento area. We did a Waylon Jennings/ Hank Williams Jr. concert, for Charlie Magoo Presents, which was owned and operated by the Rodeo Chapter of the Hells Angels, from down by Vallejo. I was dispatched early to meet the caterer’s van and un-load it. There was Tule fog down to the ground that morning. As I waited in the parking lot, lost in a total white-out, waiting for the van, I heard the rumble of two Harley’s circling, trying to find the arena. When by accident, we finally almost collided, I got a chance to meet my bosses for the day, “Tiny” a 6′4″ 300 pound gentleman and his sidekick “Dump Truck,” who was so big he made Tiny look like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs. Dump Truck had ridden all the way up from Rodeo in the fog wearing nothing but his colors, open at the front to give his beer gut room to breath. Nowadays it seems like every soccer mom has a unicorn tattooed on her ankle, but Dump Truck had a death’s head tattooed on his chest the size of a garbage can lid and it was impressive.

The van arrived, and we unloaded all the party supplies– case after case of Jack Daniels. The meeting of the minds that occurred later in the day when Wayon’s Waylors Band and the Hank Williams band got tangled up with the Angels and a Ford Econoline’s worth of whiskey was something to behold and a party to remember, but that’s another story. So much for life in Lake Wobegon. -Andy

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

photo above by Graydon G. Griffin circa 1963 of Andy Griffin, age 4. He was at his grandparents house, it’s where we live now. -julia

The Potato

“What has eyes but does not see?” crooned the singer. “Does not see, does not see.”

“A potato, stupid!” Lena bellowed from the back seat. When she was five Lena took great pleasure in beating the chorus girls to their punch lines.

“A potato, a potato, a potato,” cooed the backup singers as Lena laughed. It was the schmaltzy “Silly Songs” again, a grubby kiddie-music cassette making its millionth passage through the bowels of our tape deck.

“Play it again!” yelled Lena, and I did; not because I liked the song but because I love my daughter. The song is all wrong. My sympathies are entirely with the potato. Who are we to call the potato blind?

Look how the Spaniards behaved when they discovered Peru. They were so dazzled by the glitter of the gold they stole that they had no eyes for the potato. Pound for pound the potato has proven to be one of the most productive and nutritious vegetable foods ever developed by humankind; a veritable buried treasure Potatoes provide complex carbohydrates, starches, vitamins, minerals, and proteins and can be cultivated under a wide variety of environmental conditions. They can be stored fresh for long periods of time against the threat of famine. Sun-dried, Inca-style, as chuño potatoes can last almost indefinitely in storage. And potatoes aren’t hard to grow.

Potatoes are not typically sown from seed, but they can be. Pre-Columbian Americans developed many distinct potato varieties, or cultivars, by cross pollinating different wild strains, harvesting the fruits, and growing out the seeds to see what kind of tubers they new hybrid plants would yield. Desirable potato varieties are easily cloned and propagated by slicing a potato into parts, each piece with its own two or three eyes, and planting them deep in well-drained soil. There’s enough water and energy stored in a potato tuber to send green shoots to the soil’s surface without irrigation. If a potato plant’s vigorous roots have a chance to tap into sub-soil moisture, it may not need to be watered even once before setting a bountiful harvest. You can’t eat gold.

In the end, the Spaniards squandered the gold they stole from Peru financing religious wars. It fell to Spain’s dread enemy, protestant England, to recognize the real treasure of Peru by cultivating the potato. But even the English didn’t perceive the commercial potential of the potato at first. Some of the blame for this blindness must be laid on cooks who misunderstood the strange new plant and steamed the foliage instead of the tubers. Diners got sick from a toxic alkaloid called solanine that’s naturally concentrated in the potato plant’s leaves. Solanine is chemically related to nicotine. More to blame were the theologians of the day. Protestants were reluctant to plant potatoes because, having not been mentioned in the Bible, potatoes were imagined to be “of Satan.”

Medieval Europeans were ignorant, not stupid, and when they initially saw the potato in a diabolical light their botany was not as bigoted as you might at first suspect. The potato is in the Nightshade family, or Solanaceae, along with Datura, Belladonna, and tobacco, three potent vision inducing plants much favored by wizards, shamans, and witches. (Before tobacco was dumbed down by the Marlborough Man some strains of tobacco were quite psychoactive, and passing the pipe meant something!) The potato’s flowers look similar to the blooms of other more notorious nightshades. A few Catholics tried cultivating potatoes despite its diabolical cousins, but as a hedge against their spiritual gamble they planted their crops amid prayer on Good Friday and irrigated the fields with holy water. I’ve never used holy water on my farm but I can tell you Good Friday is a later planting date for potatoes than I’d choose.

This year Good Friday was March 21st. Next year it will be April 12th. In California, potatoes perform best when they’re grown under the cool conditions of late winter that most closely mimic the high Andean altitudes of their wild ancestors, so I prefer to plant my crop in February. A farmer can plant potatoes several weeks before the last frost to ensure a long growing season and a maximum yield. Soil is a good insulator. It will take the potato’s new shoots a couple of weeks to reach the surface and by then winter will have passed. Even if the first potato shoots get burned back by a late frost, the tuber usually contains enough energy to send up a second set of stems quickly. Potatoes planted into warm weather never yield quite as well and are more prone to disease and insect pressure.

Once the potato was adopted in the British Isles it became one of the most efficient engines driving the industrial revolution. Potato cultivation could be carried out with less persistent labor and on fewer acres than other types of medieval farming. Peasants were freed up from the land just in time to be wage slaves in the factories spinning wool. Rural people were shoved off the land to make room for the sheep that would provide the wool for the factories. A meager diet of potatoes, supplemented with a few hardy vegetables from a cottage garden and a little goat milk from goats pastured in ditches and alleys was all the Irish working class could produce on their reduced lands, but it kept them strong enough to survive and multiply. The nutritious potato enabled the process of enclosure and suburbanization to move forward. The British lords had unwittingly come into possession of one of the world’s miracle crops, but they couldn’t see beyond exploiting their Catholic subjects in Ireland any more than the Spanish Comquistadores could with the Indios in America.

The British didn’t know it at first, but when they were planting potato tubers they were also sowing the seeds of disaster. While the Andean farmers cultivated a rainbow of different varieties Europeans cultivated only a few genotypes. When disease struck the potato crop almost every plant died from the Volga to Donegal Bay. Lack of genetic diversity meant there were no blight-resistant potato clones. Ireland was the hardest hit; over a million people died and another million were motivated by famine to emigrate.

Today Ireland is on the upswing, but the consensus euphemism for Peru’s condition is that it’s a “developing nation.” It is politically charged to call culturally rich but materially impoverished former colonies “recovering nations.” Some tourists compare the squalid poverty they encounter in modern Peru to the splendid ruins of Machu Picchu, the mysterious Atacama mummies or the astronomically significant mathematics of the Nazca Lines and they’re left sad and puzzled. Other people, like Erick Von Däniken author of the worldwide best seller Chariot of the Gods, have answers. The Nazca Lines must have been cut across the desert floor to guide UFOS in for landing, they reason. Obviously, the surprising wisdom of Peru’s past civilizations CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! The little brown people who patiently, intelligently worked for over 4000 years to transform a bitter tuberous herb into a vegetable of world-wide importance are left invisible in the glow of more evolved space beings.

Granted, Von Däniken was a sloppy, sensationalistic researcher, but the huge sales figures for his book demonstrate that his instincts were right in sync with the technophilic values we’ve acquired in the mainstream. How could wisdom come out of the dirt, anyway? And so what if we ruin this planet? –No sweat. We can build a rocket ship and fly to another one.

What has eyes but does not see? Silly songs aside, it’s not the potato that’s blind.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Potato Recipes

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